Update at 2115 KST: this article has been updated to include further comments from an expert.
North Korean first vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui arrived in Moscow on Tuesday, Russian media reported, in a visit a senior Kremlin official said would see her participate in “strategic dialogue” and be presented with a new proposal for resolving tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Choe arrived at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport yesterday afternoon, accompanied by DPRK vice foreign minister Im Chon Il, a senior diplomat responsible for ties with Russia.
Speaking Tuesday on prospects for the visit, Russian deputy foreign minister Igor Morgulov said the Kremlin and “our Chinese friends” have agreed to a new proposal for “a settlement of the nuclear and other problems of the Korean peninsula.”
This proposal, he said, builds on previous plans of action by Beijing and Moscow for the resolution of tensions in Korea, and will be presented to both the North Koreans and the U.S. — as well as other stakeholders.
“Ms. Choe Son Hui has already arrived in Russia for a strategic dialogue,” Morgulov — seen as a key interlocutor between Pyongyang and Moscow — said.
“I think we will take the opportunity to introduce [it to] our North Korean partners.”
While Morgulov did not share further details on the content of this new proposal, Choe’s visit to Moscow comes amid growing fears that a shaky détente between North Korea and the U.S. could be on the verge of falling apart.
Pyongyang has set the end of the year as its deadline for diplomacy with Washington to bear fruit, with a series of statements by top DPRK officials in recent days seeking to remind the U.S. of that fact.
Most recently, Tuesday saw foreign ministry official and key DPRK-U.S. interlocutor Kim Myong Gil stress that the country was not interested in talks without concrete steps from Washington to drop its “hostile policy” towards the North.
It’s not immediately clear what this new Sino-Russian proposal might involve, with North Korea having repeatedly reiterated in recent weeks that it seeks direct talks with the U.S. and is not interested in speaking through mediators like South Korea or Sweden.
But one expert suggested the proposal may see Beijing and Moscow seek to multilateralize the process, as they did in the 2000s under the rubric of the Six Party Talks.
“One potential aspect of the new Sino-Russian action plan to look out for is for Beijing and Moscow to reach out to European states, particularly France, Germany, and the UK,” Anthony Rinna, an analyst with the Sino-NK research group and a columnist for NK News, said.
“Moscow has expressed an interest in pursuing its security interests via the P5+1,” he pointed out.
“As North Korea-U.S. diplomacy has stalled, China and Russia may see it more fitting to try and coordinate with relevant European powers.”
But any proposal this week is likely to see Russian and Chinese officials seek to lay out a path of action through which North Korea could win some relief from international sanctions — and to disincentivize Pyongyang from reverting to the saber-rattling seen in 2017.
“This proposal likely calls for mutual concessions by North Korea and the U.S.,” Artyom Lukin, a International Relations scholar at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, told NK News. “It is difficult to come up with anything particularly new and original here.”
“What matters more is whether Moscow and Beijing will use their leverage over DPRK to make it accept this plan,” he continued.
“For any settlement plan to work, North Korea has to give up substantial nuclear capabilities beyond just Yongbyon, which has been its only specific offer up to now. Will Beijing and Moscow be willing, and able, to convince Pyongyang to go beyond Yongbyon?”
Also important, Lukin said, would be whether the Russian-Chinese plan extended beyond issues related to North Korea’s denuclearization.
“In particular, does it condition the Korean peninsula settlement, including the achievement of full denuclearization, on major changes to Northeast Asia’s security order, such as the need to reduce American military presence in the region?”
The Kremlin has frequently in the past year argued that the DPRK has taken steps to commensurate with sanctions relief, with a trilateral statement by North Korea, Russian, and Chinese officials in Moscow last October calling for a “timely review” of those measures.
“The Sino-Russian bloc may attempt to convince the European P5+1 members to roll back sanctions against Pyongyang,” analyst Rinna suggested Wednesday.
Also on the table for this week’s talks, deputy minister Morgulov said on Tuesday, will be “regional” issues and other matters of concern for the bilateral relationship.
Among these may be the ongoing detention in Russia of several hundred North Korean fishermen, as well as a looming UN deadline requiring the repatriation of all DPRK workers overseas by December 22.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: Russian foreign ministry, file photo